Learning to Partner with a Life-Place
by Peter Berg
(Ecuador Dispatch #1, June 12, 2004)
On a fog-wet spring morning in San Francisco, our
unusual urban group climbed to the top of a rock promontory midway along a
canyon trail to get a clear view of the standout feature in a
partially undeveloped park. The expedition of city explorers consisted of
a wilderness enthusiast who arrived on a motorcycle with his realtor girl
friend riding behind, three environmental students from Minnesota,
Connecticut and New Jersey, and myself as guide. This park presents a
jarring contrast between native and exotic vegetation, plants that grew
there naturally and those brought from another part of the world.
Eucalyptus trees originating in Australia were planted over a hundred
years ago and subsequently spread invasively over the hillsides along the
trail. Then they stopped short as though a border had been drawn as part
of a landscaper’s design. It was actually a natural effect, attributable
to a flat spot where water from a creek spread out to nourish a wide swath
of yellow willows and dozens of other native plants. Willows thrive where
their roots are constantly wet, and here they had become too large and
dense to be crowded out by past or present intruders. The same group of
indigenous species had probably occupied this identical place starting
some time after the Ice Age, perhaps as long as ten thousand years. It
didn’t take specialized knowledge to see how the tall, straight, shaggy
trunks of the sparsely leafed non-natives differed from low, impenetrably
dense willows that had prospered so well they had grown to medium-size
trees. An inescapable trace of the difference appeared when the sharp
cough drop scent of eucalyptus nuts that we had all noticed along the
trail suddenly yielded to an inviting humus perfume of dark brown decaying
willow leaves. It was as complete a transition as when a chapter ends and
a new one begins.
We sat on outcrops of what had once been the
compacted floor of the Pacific Ocean. The edge of the sea bottom was
twisted and thrust upward millions of years ago by the force of the North
American and Pacific Tectonic Plates colliding during Continental Drift.
As ancient as the foundations for natural life here might be, the stand of
willows that we had just walked through looked narrow and vulnerable from
above. Newly built houses looped ominously around the rim of the canyon
like an encircling noose. What we were seeing was only a miniscule refuge.
A sense of thoughtful sadness came over the group.
One of the college students had been quiet until our
stop. Now her low voice broke the silence. “This isn’t the way they
taught me botany.”
What an off-center remark! She had our complete
surprised attention and quickly obliged with an explanation. She had taken
the course because of an impulse toward Nature as a relief from
conflicting social and personal directions. She even planned a trip to
Ecuador soon to volunteer working with forest revegetation projects. The
botany class had been a way to get a little background. “From the
beginning we just learned about uses for plants and making them as
productive as possible. The professor said it definitely wasn’t an
ecology class and that they liked poisons, herbicides, fertilizers, and so
forth. I got put off and didn’t get much out of it ”
The rest of us looked at each other and nodded
affirmation with the relieved understanding that comes from solving a
puzzle together. “Well, at least he was honest for a change,” blurted
out the wilderness loving biker, speaking what the rest of us felt.
“Things may actually be changing for the better if they feel it’s
necessary to make that distinction,” someone else asserted wryly.
We had taken the walk to see some broad aspects of
northern California as a unique natural place. Having been left in its
original condition, this small section of the park retained some of the
classic essentials. Just walking through brought the unique experience of
a coastal canyon watershed. Chert stones in several shades of red
crunching beneath our feet proclaimed the soil underpinnings. Native
plants grew in their chosen natural habitats: watercress in the creek,
piggyback plants in the shade, yellow blue-eyed grass in a sunny patch of
marsh. A red-tailed hawk’s nest darkened the crotch of some tree
We even had a view of the built-up, paved over city
stretching out beyond the park. The same native elements in this refuge
persisted there in some form as well, traveling in the air or lying
dormant beneath the sidewalks and streets. The creek might disappear down
a storm drain and into an underground sewer at a point farther on but it
still ran free here. How many of these things could be seen in other
places of the city outside the park? How much could be restored? Our
conversation until the walk ended was occupied with similar atypical urban
observations, seemingly coaxed by the living generosity of the creek.
But the student’s dissatisfaction implied a
different kind of question.
Meaningful Ecological Learning, Fast
The present planet-wide ecological crisis is foremost
in the minds of an ever-widening circle that encompasses groups as
different as scientists and business planners, academics and construction
workers, and even some politicians. Our concern has moved beyond
self-serving quibbling to identify this calamity as a primary problem in
urgent need of solutions. Denial of crucial indications such as global
warming is deluded and dangerous. It only contributes to public unease
through increased frustration and suspicion.
More and more of the national and international
issues of the 21st century can be directly traced to ecologically rooted
causes. Struggles over
energy availability and use, limitations on water and other essential
resources, food shortages, and increasing population have already become
the basis for wars that jeopardize reasonable approaches to ecological
We can’t delay in reversing our rampant destruction
and learning to live integrally with the rest of life. Ecological
sustainability can’t continue to be viewed as a luxury that only the
richest countries can afford. It is an essential goal for every human
society regardless of economic level, geographic location, or culture. It
can no longer be compartmentalized as just an environmental concern
either. We have to learn to live within the limits of the biosphere, and
this is such a serious problem that it requires a thorough going
redirection of the central course of society.
We desperately need to gain knowledge that enables
individuals and communities to make ecologically beneficial decisions
about what to do and how to do it. This has to become a primary function
of contemporary information media and education at all levels. At present
in even the best institutions of learning, general access to useful
information about sustainability is as remote as Antarctica. It needs to
become as close as a radio, a television set, or a neighbor’s
conversation. It definitely needs to be taught at every level of
schooling. If classes in specific natural sciences such as botany aren’t
required to teach these things, where can a student learn?
A Personal, Local Start
Learning how to develop solutions at the level of the
whole biosphere may be too far a reach for most people, but at least they
can find out what needs to be done in the particular place where they
live. Work to become compatible with local life systems in a home place.
These are both comprehensible and realistic goals. Each person lives in a
specific bioregion, a life-place that is an essential part of the
planetary web of life. Even small outlays of effort locally can genuinely
benefit some aspect of the mutuality of life. They result in tangible
outcomes that are there to live with and watch while their impact on other
natural features grows. There is no question that this kind of involvement
will stimulate the expansion of personal ecological consciousness.
Salutarily, it is a genuine and necessary remedy that will aid more
wide-ranging cures such as decreasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere or
reducing global warming.
We need to gain knowledge about regional ecology with
an emphasis on social and cultural implications. How do we identify the
basic starting points for maintaining and restoring life where we live?
Active Projects Have a Priority
Because rapid action is required to harmonize with
local natural systems and to remedy damage already done, there have to be
to hands-on projects: learning by doing essential work to achieve natural
health in our life-places.
Choosing these projects can follow simple guidelines.
Because the educational core is lit by an ecological imperative, there are
three clear sources for activities. These are primary colors that
will make up all the shades and blends of a full spectrum of possible
The first is restoration and maintenance of
natural features to whatever extent is immediately possible.
These rehabilitory efforts to restore life-place health must be undertaken
with a sensibility for continuous improvement. They are the cornerstones
for more projects aimed to eventually regain the highest possible level of
For example, planting native trees on an eroded hillside can be the first
step toward restoring habitats for native plants and animals, and might
eventually lead to creating a wild corridor.
Next is developing sustainable means to satisfy
basic human needs. Food, water, energy, shelter, materials, and
information are essential, and they can be elaborated in numerous
variations. Some possibilities: growing indigenous plant species for food,
reusing wastewater, using renewable energy to power households, building
with recycled or regenerated native materials, creating new products from
indigenous resources, and heightening bioregional awareness through public
media. And those are only single entries from long “to do” lists in
Finally there needs to be support for living in
place in the widest possible range of ways from economics and culture to
politics and philosophy. This involves both proactive undertakings
that create positive alternatives as well as protests against ecological
devastation and disruption.
What Else is Different About Life-Place Education?
The main focus for life-place learning is on the
ecologically bounded place itself. It isn’t difficult to locate this
spot. Identify the climate, weather, landforms, watershed, predominant
geological and soil conditions, native plants and animals, and sustainable
aspects of the traditional culture along with ecological practices of
present day inhabitants. Your life-place is the geographic area where
those things converge. Lessons, workshops, and exercises need to be
directed toward identifying and harmonizing with the specific features of
that place, and they should do this while assisting to carry out public
projects that foster ecological sustainability.
If participants include children, young adults and seniors, all the
better because that will mean the whole range of generations within the
community is involved. Each age group brings essential ingredients for the
ultimate success of the educational program.
Another new feature for life-place schooling is
that it operates to some extent throughout the year. This is important
because it is the only way everyone can witness the effect of each season
on what is being learned and the work that’s done. Students need to
observe the movement that takes place within life processes over time, and
responses to different seasonal conditions. Otherwise they won’t
perceive characteristics that are indispensable; cycles of change and how
forces of life vary from month to month.
A First Year’s Worth of Learning/Doing
The first year needs to be as basic as possible
because of its foundational role for future studies and projects. A
valuable starting place is the fact that every life-place has lost some of
the original trees and plants that provided habitats and were essential
members of ecosystems. Revegetation projects to replant native plants are
undoubtedly needed. Due to the massive displacement of these species by
timber cutting, farming and land development, it is likely that their
identities and inter-workings will be relatively unknown. In fact, the
overall ecological life patterns of the place will need to be
rediscovered. To address these problems set two practical
objectives: 1) propagate indigenous plants in local neighborhoods, and 2)
create a map and guide that shows characteristics of local natural
To cover four seasons the program can be divided
into quarters of three months each.
a) Native plant species. Locate and
identify, obtain seeds through gathering and other sources, plant seeds.
b) Watershed. Begin to identify natural
landforms and water bodies from available charts and direct outdoors
c) Arts and handicrafts. Research
existing examples of arts and products created from local materials.
Create planters for seeds from recycled containers.
d) Mapping. Create individual maps
showing landforms, watersheds, water bodies, soils, native plants and
animals, and major human interactions with them (Discovering Your
Life-Place: A First Bioregional Workbook contains this exercise).
a) Native plants for habitat restoration.
Grow indigenous plant seedlings preferably in local neighborhood
b) Soil exploration. Hike through different
locations to observe landforms, geological characteristics, and soils.
Test for soil types, study erosion, and learn stages of compost cycle.
c) Food consciousness. Learn what native
foods are presently available and how they are prepared. Grow vegetable
d) Begin a consolidated large-scale map of the
e) Determine revegetation sites and begin
planting native trees (at that time or in a more appropriate season).
f) Continue First Quarter
identification of native species and watershed, and arts and handicrafts
a) Climate and weather characteristics.
Identify seasonal variations and effects. Emphasize annual periods of rain
or snow for water availability, create means for collecting rain or snow
melt water, relate water availability to growth and development of plants,
learn water sources and human utilization.
b) Energy sources and uses. Identify and
contrast renewable and non-renewable forms of energy, relate human energy
needs to climate and weather, build model solar rooftop water-heating
c) Continue First and Second Quarter activities.
a) Indigenous culture. Research archeological
sources for information and explore sites. Create awareness about
indigenous people (speakers, visits, interviews, oral histories, etc.)
Assist museums and indigenous peoples’ service agencies or groups.
b) Literature. Read works by past and present
local writers. Write stories, poems and journals using life-place themes.
Explore at least one other language that is used besides the dominant
tongue of the place.
c) Continue First, Second and Third Quarter
d) Plan next year’s work to continue
present projects and initiate new ones.
To accommodate conventional school and job
schedules of students, it may be necessary to hold classes (whatever
number of sessions per week proves most workable) for only two hours in
the late afternoon, and two hours in the early evening. (Perhaps with a
dinner break in between.) The first session should be spent working on
outdoor projects to take advantage of daylight, while the second can be
indoors for lessons, study, writing, and workshops.
The teacher is primarily a guide to the
work/learning process. A background in ecology and the natural sciences is
essential, but this can be from practical experience or personal study as
well as formal instruction. The teacher-guide should also have a working
experience with previous restoration and sustainability projects. Because
potential candidates for teachers may come from many fields, and
life-paces themselves vary so widely, it would be inappropriate to advise
a universal work plan. Let the subjects be chosen to follow a direction
that is organic in the specific place, and determine their order, amount
of study, and seasonal duration by the needs of projects at hand.
The one imperative for a teacher is to avoid the
trap of determining student results through evaluations such as
examinations or tests. Rebuilding a role for human beings in the natural
flows of the place where they live will not be achieved by a grade at the
end of the term. This goal can only be measured by the degree of a
student’s involvement in the accomplishment of direct, practical
results. With class subjects ranging from restoring a habitat or a
watershed, producing food and energy through renewable means, utilizing
native and recycled materials in making products, and creating life-place
culture, each member has started on a life-long exploration. What is
learned can even transfer to benefit other places where a student may
visit or live in the future.
This is a constructive way to begin learning to
identify with and actually become part of a place in the biosphere. It is
overdue. And needs to start immediately.